Kansas governor meets with Republican legislative leaders on COVID-19 mitigation

Published: Oct. 27, 2020 at 7:25 PM CDT
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TOPEKA, Kan. (KWCH) - Gov. Laura Kelly met Tuesday afternoon with Republican leaders in the Kansas legislature to discuss how to best slow the spread of COVID-19. The meeting comes a day after Kansas posted new record highs for cases and hospitalizations over the last seven days.

The initial goal for the governor was to work toward a bi-partisan mask requirement.

Democratic House Minority leader Tom Sawyer was on the virtual call on Tuesday. He said especially in counties facing hotspots, the governor’s office and state legislative leaders will try to encourage county leaders to put health orders in place.

“It was a good productive meeting, we decided not to have a special session right now. the approach is to work together and try to solve this without going to legislation. The governor, along with legislative leadership will work together to try encourage counties where there are problems right now to impose a local act, mask mandate of some kind,” said Rep. Sawyer.

He added, “I think the encouragement of the Republican legislative leadership and the governor working together because some of these counties it maybe politics, who knows why and what’s keeping them from imposing mandates, but maybe everyone working together and going look this is the data, this is a major health issue we’ve got to take care of this, we have to deal with this. We’re talking about people getting sick, hospitalized and even dying, and it’s important that the county deal with it.”

Gov. Kelly released a statement following the meeting.

“Legislative leadership agreed to work with me through a strategy of engagement with municipalities, counties, and stakeholders to increase the use of masks and mask requirements across the State of Kansas. It is my hope that this bipartisan outreach strategy will avert the need for emergency legislation through a special session,” said Gov. Kelly in a statement on Tuesday.

State Republicans have advocated for a localized approach, rather than statewide.

“I think the thing that we have to remember is that case numbers aren’t the really important thing here. We were told very early on from Dr. Norman that we shouldn’t focus on the case counts and that seems like all we want to focus on is the case counts. I looked at the KDHE website. There’s still 40 percent of our ICU beds are available. I looked at our death rate, it is staying consistent. Those are the real triggers in my opinion that warrant further actions from our counties,” said Rep. Stephen Owens.

In a recent report from the Kansas Health Institute, it showed as of earlier this month, of the 105 counties in Kansas, only 33 have in place some form of COVID-19 related restriction. Of those, only two-dozen counties require masks.

“I believe it is her desire to somehow bring the legislature together to undo HB 2016 that was passed in the special session that allows counties to have local rule, local control over the executive orders coming out of the statehouse,” said Rep. Owens. “My expectation is that she’s going to discuss that with leadership and try to get is it feasible or not feasible and the likelihood of calling a special session to address this issue.”

House Bill 2016, passed during the June special session, allows for counties to opt-out of the governor’s orders... like many did following the governor’s first mask mandate in July.

“We can control the spread of this virus. We can slow the progress of this virus. We just need to do the reasonable things to accomplish that. And I’m sorry if county commissioners aren’t willing to stand up to the few who don’t' recognize the danger that we’re in,” said Rep. John Carmichael, a Democrat from Wichita.

Rep. Carmichael said action needs to be taken to help keep local hospitals from being overrun. He said Wichita hospitals are taking patients from out of state and if trends continue in the state, there might not be enough ICU beds in the COVID unit by Thanksgiving.

“I am so disappointed in my colleagues in leadership, specifically the Republicans in leadership. It is long, long overdue to sit down at the table with the Governor and do what’s necessary to protect Kansans from a pandemic,” said Rep. Carmichael.

Fort Hays State University’s Docking Institute released a poll Monday of Kansans. Nearly 95 percent of respondents say they wear a face mask in stores or other businesses. More than 70 percent agree face masks help to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Kansas House leaders released a similar statement also stating that they hoped not to need a special session and legislation.

"Legislative leadership met with the Governor today to talk about strategies for increasing the use of masks by Kansans across the state. All agreed to seek strategies to improve public education and voluntary collaboration to increase the use of masks rather than a special session and legislation. We call on all Kansans to practice personal responsibility and compassion for their fellow Kansans by wearing a mask, practicing social distancing, and proper hygiene. This is the right thing to do. In the words of the former U.S. Senate Chaplain, Peter Marshall “'May we think of freedom, not as the right to do as we please, but as the opportunity to do what is right.'”

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